Baltimore lawmakers and community activists called Sunday for more reforms and federal oversight of the city's Police Department after learning about broken bones and battered faces from an investigation into allegations of police brutality in recent years.
Responding to results of a six-month Baltimore Sun investigation, two councilmen said they had not known that the city paid money in more than 100 settlements or jury verdicts since 2011.
"The administration likes to keep some of that quiet," said Councilman Warren Branch, head of the panel's public safety committee.
Councilman Carl Stokes agreed, saying: "Obviously, it's been a hidden secret about this issue."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake scoffed, saying the cases get approved before the city Board of Estimates and are detailed on public agendas, though The Sun investigation showed that board documents often omitted key details. Rawlings-Blake stressed that many of the incidents detailed in the Sun article occurred between 2007 and 2010 and took years to go through the court system.
The Sun's investigation revealed that the city has been involved in 102 court judgments and settlements since 2011, making payouts of up to $500,000. The victims ranged from teenagers to octogenarians. Judges or prosecutors dropped nearly all charges against residents.
In 43 of the lawsuits, taxpayers paid $30,000 or more. Such beatings, in which the victims are most often African-Americans, carry a hefty cost. They can poison relationships between police and the community, limiting cooperation in the fight against crime.
"Law enforcement officers are trusted with the task of protecting our communities, and each time they respond with unnecessary violence, they lose that trust," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore. "We need better training for our police, allowing them to handle every situation in a way that keeps the people they serve safe — and we must hold officers accountable when they fail to do that."
Police brutality was one of the main issues broached by residents in nine recent forums Rawlings-Blake held across Baltimore. She reiterated Sunday that the issue has been one of her biggest concerns, dating back to when she was council president.
She pointed out a host of changes made after she hired Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts in 2012, including disbanding the impact unit that triggered many of the lawsuits. Batts has also toughened the trial boards that determine guilt or innocence, and discipline cases are moving faster through the pipeline.
The mayor stressed she will not tolerate misconduct and hired a commissioner who is known for rooting out problems and transforming police forces.
"We have a straight path that addresses the issues of misconduct," she said, noting there is room for improvement.
Councilman Brandon Scott said he wants the mayor to find out why similar departments face fewer lawsuits and pay millions less when residents accuse officers of battery, false arrest and false imprisonment.
He also wants a tougher civilian police review board so members have more authority to impose sanctions against officers. Scott lauded improvements in recent years under Batts, but he said it's not enough.
"We need more changes," Scott said. "We need to push the envelope."
Heber Brown III, an African-American activist, commentator, and pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, wants the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into the Baltimore Police Department.
"It's time for oversight of a higher authority," Brown said. "City leaders have proven they can't be trusted alone. The community has to keep the pressure on."
The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, agreed.
"We have to have [federal authorities] take control of the Baltimore Police Department," he said. "The relationships with the community are so severed that it's beyond repair."
In the lawsuits where settlements are reached before a trial, the city and the officers involved do not acknowledge any wrongdoing. But city policies also help shield the scope and impact of the police beatings. The city's settlement agreements contain a clause that prohibits injured residents from making any public statement — or talking to the news media — about the incidents.
When settlements are placed on the agenda at public meetings involving the mayor and other top officials, the cases are described using excerpts from police reports, with allegations of brutality routinely omitted.
The Sun article showed mug shots of 29 residents and went up on projection screens Sunday at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church and Empowerment Temple.
Brown said he told worshippers that the article validates the problems that many residents have complained about for years. He said it is time for Rawlings-Blake "to stop scolding residents for not working with police" to solve crimes.
"It debunks the thinking that people had to be doing something that made them suspicious to police," Brown said. "No matter if you are 15 or 80, you are susceptible to the violence of police brutality in Baltimore."
The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor at Empowerment Temple, who has railed against police brutality, lauded the work that many police officers perform in Baltimore. But, he said, Rawlings-Blake and other city leaders aren't doing enough to rid the force of bad officers.
He called on elected leaders to loosen state personnel laws that prevent the public from finding out whether officers were ever disciplined for any allegations.
"My heart grieves as a pastor that we have these problems," Bryant said. "We're not getting any answers. We just can't commiserate about this."
Besides more training and a zero-tolerance policy for excessive force, council members also suggested loosening state laws that stop police leaders from discussing individual cases of discipline.
Last week, Branch and Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young introduced legislation that would require every city officer to wear a body camera within a year. Both men argued the move would cut down on police brutality in the aftermath of several high-profile misconduct allegations.
Much of the council praised the idea, but Rawlings-Blake called the bill a "piecemeal approach to a comprehensive and complex problem" of improper police conduct.
Branch said cameras are needed even more now—with the revelations reported by The Sun. After learning about more lawsuits and payouts, Branch said he's getting more skeptical of believing "the boys in blue" when it comes to police brutality.
"The cries are getting louder and louder each year," he said. "We have to address these issues."
Stokes also faulted Rawlings-Blake for telling the public that the police force gets along with residents, adding: "This doesn't exactly bear out" in light of The Sun investigation.
Rawlings-Blake said she doesn't scold residents.
Instead, she reiterates that a partnership between the police and community is the best way to solve problems.
"As a community, we have to be equally as passionate to get criminals off the street," the mayor said.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said Marylanders have made great strides across the state by developing a "a sacred trust" between communities and police officers.
A statement from O'Malley's office read, in part, "This conduct isn't befitting of the citizens of Baltimore, nor do they represent those in law enforcement who've worked to help drive down crime to its lowest levels in forty years."
Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton called on police leaders to provide better training so officers can learn how to deal with different personalities on the streets.
While she lauded the work that police officers perform, she said Baltimore still has some bad officers on the streets..
"We have some that should not have that job as a career," Middleton said after reading The Sun investigation.
The Sun investigation, she said, brought back memories of five Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King in 1991. The mug shots published Sunday bothered her, she said.
"They have scars for life," Middleton said. "Police have a responsibility to protect us."
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